03/24/2012 05:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Short on Election-Year Ammo, Republicans Try to Turn Obama into Carter

Ever since the 2008 election, Republicans have been trying to convince American voters that Barack Obama is destined to become "another" Jimmy Carter: a weak, moralizing leader lacking in the wisdom and strength to lead a great nation at a time of peril, and therefore undeserving of a second presidential term.

And now, with gas prices at their highest level in four years, and Islamic Iran, America's long-time nemesis, suddenly looming large as a possible nuclear war threat, Republicans in search of a compelling election-year message may be finally getting their chance.

Remember those long, sweltering lines at the gas pumps -- including ugly riots in Levittown, PA -- during the summer of 1979? And the anger and humiliation provoked by the seizure of American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran that November?

Most Americans under age 50 probably don't, in fact. And whether there's anything linking those distant events -- other than"gas prices" and "Iran" -- to America's current strategic or domestic dilemmas, or to Obama's statecraft, is debatable. But Republicans, led by "Revisionist-in-Chief" Newt Gingrich -- aren't looking for intelligent debate. What they desperately want is what they got -- largely courtesy of Carter himself -- in 1980: a compelling "doom and gloom" narrative they can recycle endlessly in the mainstream media until it takes hold with a large swath of the electorate.

It's not hard to figure out why, either. Obama's emerging re-election strategy -- summarized neatly in Joe Biden's mantra, "Bin Laden is Dead, General Motors is Alive" -- while hardly airtight, has largely insulated the president from the charge that his first term's been a "failure." And since January, with increasingly steady job growth and a fall in the unemployment rate amid other undeniable signs of economic recovery, many in the Obama camp -- bolstered by polls -- have been speaking ever more unabashedly of Obama's first-term "success."

Are Republicans worried? You bet they are. None of their leading presidential candidates, even the putatively "electable" Mitt Romney, is currently holding his own in head-to-head match-ups with Obama. And while the president still faces real challenges among white independents in the swing states, Republicans haven't made much headway with these voters, either.

Which means if current trends hold, Obama's the odds-on favorite to win this November.

And so, the GOP is inventing a new narrative -- or rather, recycling and retrofitting, an old one. It began several weeks ago with a sudden shift in the national security debate away from global terrorism and insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan to the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, and the potential threat Iran poses to America's long-standing ally, Israel. That shift in the regional focus from Southwest Asia -- an arena of extraordinary Obama success -- to the Middle East dovetails nicely with the right's ongoing claim that Obama is "tilting" toward the Arab world by criticizing Israel's aggressive settlements policy and by insisting on a Palestinian state. And, of course, there's an insidious subtext here that's potentially the perfect red meat for the rabid GOP base: Obama's "appeasing" the Muslim world because, after all, he's really a Muslim himself.

But it's rising gas prices -- the pocketbook issue -- that's really breathing new life into the "Carter analogy." Never mind that gas hikes have bedeviled virtually ever American president since Carter. Under Reagan, gas prices topped $3.50 per gallon -- more or less the level they are today -- and under Bush they reached a whopping $4.40 a gallon, their highest level ever. Did Republicans turn around and blame their presidents, just as they had Carter? Of course, not. Fox News pundits said exactly what Obama defenders are currently saying: given the market forces at work -- the rising price of crude oil, as well as political unrest and insecurity in the Middle East -- there isn't much that a president can do in the short term.

In fact, a good case can be made that rising gas prices are a reflection of growing prosperity, domestically and abroad. As every economist knows, when economies expand, the demand for oil rises, as does the price, and downstream prices for oil-related products may rise also, especially if there are problems in the distribution network, as they're frequently are. But gas hikes don't last forever, at least not if history is any guide. For all the talk of $7.000 or $10.00 a gallon gas, it's never happened -- and no serious economist thinks that it will occur this time, either.

Still, Americans are addicted to their autos, and in the midst of a deep recession, they may be willing to cut back on luxury purchases, but not on their basic freedom to drive. Polls show that gas hikes in the context of economic uncertainty can sharply sway voter sensibilities, as a number of presidents, Carter and Bush among them, have learned the hard way. So the GOP's latest gambit, while reflective of a certain desperation, shouldn't be underestimated. Carter's approval rating languished below 40% for most of his final year in office, and nearly reached 30% in the months leading up to the 1980 election. Obama's nowhere near that level, but for most of the past year, he's failed to get to 50%, a failure that generally dooms incumbent presidents. Left unchecked, there's no reason to think that it won't kill Obama's re-election, too.

And Obama's campaign clearly knows it. Anxious over the very latest polls, it's embraced rhetorical compromise on the Keystone pipeline while launching a highly-touted West coast "energy" tour designed to reassure an increasingly nervous public that Obama knows what he's doing, especially on the economy. And don't be surprised if the president also makes a major new peace overture with Israel or Iran to try to cool down simmering international tensions.

Still, if conservatives do succeed in establishing gas prices -- rather than the jobless rate -- as the key index for measuring the progress of the Obama presidency -- and events conspire to make Obama look disturbingly Carter-like -- the November race could turn out to be much closer than expected.